Fanny, we hardly knew you

US feminists have given a new lease of life to a British writer all but forgotten at home, reports Veronica Lee

FANNY BURNEY, all but ignored in British schools, has found a new lease of life nearly 160 years after her death - as a feminist heroine to American students. The regency writer, contemporary of Dr Johnson and Jane Austen, has a huge following among young female students in the United States, who have dedicated more than 150 websites to her life and work - far more than those about Austen, who is regarded as "mimsy".

Burney's subtle but acidly witty observations on late 18th and early 19th-century life have captured their imaginations. Jane Garcia, 24, a graduate student at the University of California, says: "She writes with far more soul and acuity than Austen, who I think copped out on her social observations because, when all is said and done, she wanted to be part of the very society she was supposed to be attacking. With Burney you feel she wasn't quite part of the society she wrote about."

Burney is seen as a woman oppressed by American feminist academics; she was discouraged from writing for the stage - her real love - because it was considered "indelicate" for a woman to do so at a time when actresses were barely above the levels of courtesans.

But what can someone who wrote of balls and taking the waters in Bath say to young women of a different continent and a different age? "She had a mind of her own and that's what counts," says Garcia. And the forward to one of her novels can be seen as a clarion call to the sisterhood: "Forget you are a dawdling woman, to remember that you are an active human being."

Her own life was full, to say the least. A major new biography reveals that Burney's brother had a relationship with her half-sister, her elder sister was illegitimate and her brother was rusticated from Cambridge for stealing books. None of that would be out of place in a modern-day tabloid story of the rich and famous.

Burney's American revival, says Yale academic Dr Nancy Johnson, can be traced back to her inclusion in histories of women's literature about 10 years ago. "She is very easy to read and very teachable, and now appears on almost every course on the novel. Her work is very lively and jumps off the page - it really brings that period to life."

Kate Chisholm, Burney's new biographer, is not so sure that Americans have really decoded her. "A lot of the stuff they teach is about her body [Burney had a mastectomy in middle age and gave birth to her first child at the age of 42], and a lot is about her imagery being about repressed sexuality. For instance, one of her characters, Madame Duval, who's a dreadful woman, falls into a ditch and they say it's really about an opening into her... oh, I don't think I can go into it, it's too embarrassing. The latest thing is about her descriptions of wigs having phallic connotations. To me that's totally up a gum tree. She just wasn't like that. Burney was an original woman with independent thoughts but she was also quite prudish and conventional. She would drop people who she thought were having affairs."

Not very modern of her, then. So have the Americans got it wrong - how are they seeing things which have managed to pass by British eyes for 200 years? "Maybe you guys just weren't looking hard enough," says Garcia.

'Fanny Burney: Her Life' by Kate Chisholm, Chatto and Windus, pounds 20, is reviewed in IoS Review section

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Weekend Factory Operatives

    £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This high quality thread manufacturer is curr...

    Recruitment Genius: FP&A Analyst

    £40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A market leading acquirer and m...

    Recruitment Genius: Electricians

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fully qualified electricians re...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service and Business Support Assistant

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: By developing intimate relationships with inte...

    Day In a Page

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific